Teacher Spotlight: Shin Law

Every Moment is a Teaching Moment: The Story of Shin Bucks

Jillian Mendoza

For Magma Math's inaugural Teacher Spotlight, Jillian Mendoza interviews Shin Law, a 4th grade teacher at Whitehead Road Elementary School in Athens, Georgia. Shin highlights her classroom economy and how it promotes that the thought process is more valuable than final answer.

Read the complete interview:

Tell me a little bit about your journey as a teacher.

I actually studied marketing at the University of Hong Kong and when I lost my scholarship, I had to tutor to help pay my tuition. Once I began tutoring I realized I had a passion for teaching. I started out teaching for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and after graduating from college with my Master’s, I became a teaching assistant at the Chinese International School in Hong Kong.

I moved to Athens, Georgia to pursue another Master’s degree, this time in early childhood education. I knew I wanted to teach in US public schools and serve students in low income communities, and I thrive when working with diverse students and teachers.

And what do you currently teach?

I teach 4th grade homeroom, all subjects, at Whitehead Road Elementary School.

What you are not teaching or lesson planning, what do you enjoy doing?

What do you mean when I am not teaching! I do really enjoy rock climbing, and I recently got into woodworking, mostly furniture making and basic household items. I’m also obsessed with making friendship bracelets and have made over 100 so far.

Tell me about something creative you have done with your students.

Let me tell you about Shin Bucks. Shin bucks are part of an elaborate positive behavior intervention system I started when I was trying to figure out how to reward positive behavior. It’s turned into so much more and I am in my second year of the Shin Bucks system.

How exciting! Where did the idea come from?

It began when I wanted to celebrate Lunar New Year with my students. In my culture, we celebrate Chinese New Year when adults give children red envelopes containing money. I wanted my students to feel the joy that I experienced as a child during Chinese New Year and as it might be illegal to give students actual money, Shin Bucks were born.

I realized I could use my class currency to simulate a small economy, so I bought some prizes (out of pocket) and consolidated items that other teachers have given to me (I'm a hoarder), where kids could exchange Shin Bucks for rewards. I opened Shin Mart shortly after Chinese New Year and since it coincided with my unit on mixed numbers and fractions, I decided to leverage Shin Bucks in my math lessons.

That sounds like a great, authentic way to get students doing math.

Exactly. I love learning and I see every moment as a teaching opportunity. Instead of being able to cash out Shin Bucks I decided that all the prices for items would be mixed numbers and decimals. Shin Bucks only come in $100 bills so students needed to determine a way to convert between Shin Bucks and the prices listed on each item (Note: $100 in Shin Bucks is the unit cost in Shin Mart).

Before students could buy prizes, they would need to convert prices and explore the relationship between fractions and decimals, and since that cannot get change for a $100 Shin Bucks bill, they must work to maximize how many prizes they can get by finding how close to the amount they've earned that they can spend at once.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really worried about picking a standard to teach to; I like to find moments where students are curious and can maximize their opportunities for learning.

Wow, how cool! Do Shin Bucks get used any other way?

All the time! I really like to incorporate them as a responsive teaching practice. For example, the word ‘discombobulated’ was our school's word of the week, and offered Shin Bucks to the first student who could use it correctly in a sentence everyday.

My students also keep a green index card as their Shin Bank, to keep track of their total Shin Bucks. It helps them practice adding large integers as well as organization. If students don’t log their bucks they can’t buy items with that amount.

With that being said, I do have students who try to negotiate when they’ve forgotten to log their bucks!

They will come to me at recess to try and recover their lost bucks, which I’ve found builds their self advocacy skills.

Students are also developing responsibility, organization and building financial literacy. They are practicing the skills of saving and budgeting, something not all students are able to learn at home. Opportunity cost is a 4th grade standard so I incorporate inflation and scarcity of prizes at certain times and weave it into a lesson.

Do you have any examples of how students have taken to the Shin Bucks system?

So many! In fourth grade, Takis are a hot commodity. At one point I put two small bags of Takis and 1 large bag up for sale in Shin Mart. Two of my students figured out that if they pooled their Shin Bucks together they could maximize their Takis consumption. Next thing I know they have found the cost per ounce and are discussing the fact that they would actually get more Takis if they bought the large bag together instead of two medium bags each. I loved the fact they were using the unit conversions and measurements that they had learned this year in a completely authentic way.

As Shin Bucks have evolved I’ve found more students wanting to work together-whether that’s pooling their Shin Bucks in their group, or helping each other show their work for adding fractions in Shin Mart.

Various items and their prices in Shin Mart. What combination of items can you buy with $1,000 Shin Bucks?

I’ve even taught about supply and demand and had a bidding war between a few groups for the only bag of family-size Takis. In case you were wondering, the Takis were originally worth 10 ¾ ($1,075 Shin Bucks) but ended up going for 21 ¼ ($2,125 Shin Bucks).

I don’t think we have time to go into Shin Bucks stimulus checks…

Various items and their prices in Shin Mart. What combination of items can you buy with $1,000 Shin Bucks?

I am so impressed with how your students are really engaging in learning through Shin Bucks! Why do you think creativity is so integral to teaching math?

I think true mathematicians aren't worried about the right answer. They're more interested in exploring. When exploring, it's more important to be flexible and curious than it is to be right.

When exploring, it's more important to be flexible and curious than it is to be right. Our students are so afraid of being wrong or that there's only one right way to solve a problem, and as teachers we can accidentally influence students to solve with only one way.

Through Shin Bucks they have multiple ways to solve problems. They learn to think flexibly and see that adding fractions and converting can be done in so many different ways. For students who already get it, I have them show multiple methods to verify solutions. Come to think of it, there have been many times where students’ Shin Bucks work has helped me collect data on formative assessment checks.

Math isn't about answering multiple choice questions or taking standardized tests, math is flexible and fun. Math is always applicable in real life.

Math is not an individual pursuit, it is communal- you can’t eat a family-sized Taki bag alone. Math is community based, creative, and full of mistakes.

Yes, I agree that math is a creative expression and we can show students that there are many ways to go about solving a problem, and that we don’t solve all our problems alone. Any parting wisdom for our teachers?

Trust your students. When I say trust your students, I mean trust that they can be in charge of their own learning process. All students want to learn and we need to fully believe that about each and every student. We are constantly learning from them, so view each moment not only as an opportunity to teach but an opportunity to learn.